Oct 09 2018177 How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Be Okay With Ghost Tours

Some reflections on giving tours, ghost tours, and how the Philip experiment is kind of like Dungeons and Dragons.

Apr 01 2018159 Spaghetti Trees

On April 1st, 1957 a BBC One news program ran a straight-faced and ostensibly real report on Switerzerland’s spring spaghetti crop, and convinced some of their viewers that spaghetti grew on trees.

Oct 15 2017140 The Adventures of Oliver Cromwell’s Severed Head

When he died, Oliver Cromwell was embalmed and given a funeral befitting a head of state. However, upon restoration of the British monarchy, Cromwell was exhumed and given a postmortem execution. His severed head was placed on a spike over Westminster Hall, and for twenty years his dead visage leered down upon London. The head was eventually dislodged by a storm, and for years it found itself in the hands of several owners, exchanged for debts, exhibited as a curiosity, and passed around at drunken parties.

Jul 10 2017134 The Imaginary Islands of Benjamin Morrell

There’s no shortage of things on old maps that turned out to be fictional. Regions such as the Mountains of Kong or the continent of Lemuria dot antiquated maps, and the obviousness of their fictional nature seems quaint today. However, some fictional features of old maps were more subtle. Benjamin Morrell was an American sailor in the early 1800s who, in his memoirs, A Narrative of Four Voyages, invented islands out of whole cloth, most prominently Byers Island in the Pacific, and New South Greenland, a nonexistent region he placed off the coast of Antarctica.

Nov 10 2016105 The Giants of Patagonia

For about 250 years, Europeans thought that giants lived in Patagonia. The inventor of this myth was Antonio Pigafetta, a member of the Magellan expedition who, in his memoir of the circumnavigation, reported seeing a huge man approximately ten feet tall. Later European accounts of Patagonia repeated tales of immense people living there, and Patagonian giants were a common illustration on maps from the 1500s until the late 1700s. There are (obviously) no giants in Patagonia, but the native Tehuelche population are some of the tallest people on Earth. However, they average only about six feet, not a towering ten.

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Aug 11 201693 The Know-Nothings, Part One

Decades before the modern versions of the Democratic and Republican parties formed, the US also had a few other major political parties. One was the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. Another was the Whigs, who had intermittent success before collapsing in the middle 1800s. Out of the ashes of the Whig party two other parties rose to take its place: The anti-slavery Republican party, and the anti-immigrant American Party, better known as the Know-Nothings.

The Know-Nothings opposed immigration to the United States, particularly from Catholics. Anti-Catholic paranoia has a long history in the US. Catholics (the thinking went) were more likely to be loyal to the pope than the country they lived in, were unable to work with people whom they deemed to be “heretics” and were, in general, less hardworking and virtuous than their fellow Protestants. This xenophobia, paranoia, and bigotry was prevalent enough that in the election of 1856 the Know-Nothings would contend as a major political party, albeit a failed one.

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Jul 21 201690 The Fiji Mermaid

Today PT Barnum is remembered as one of the founders of modern advertising and one of America’s greatest hucksters. His first successful hoax was to successfully promote a taxidermy monkey sewn to a fish as the corpse of a mermaid. To do this, Barnum wrote fake letters from different regions of the country to various New York newspapers, and hired an associate of his to pose as an English scientist who had the mermaid in his possession. Using deceit, fake names, and fraudulent correspondence, Barnum successfully stoked interest in the so-called “mermaid.”

The fate of the mermaid is unknown. It was possibly destroyed in a fire, but Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology has a specimen that is, possibly, Barnum’s original. After Barnum several other sideshows, museums, and curiosity shops copied the mermaid, and today many is the tourist trap cabinet of curiosities sports the horrific corpse of a monkey glued to a fish.

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Jul 07 201688 The Unknown Origins of Pasta, A Wonder of the World

As far as your humble podcaster is concerned, pasta is a wonder of the world right up there with the Pyramids and the Internet. We don’t exactly know where it came from, though. In the United States Pasta is often erroneously identified with Marco Polo. Supposedly, Polo brought back a variation on Chinese noodles from his travels, and introduced it to Italy. This story originates, though, in the United States. In 1929 a publication called the Macaroni Journal invented the Polo story, and ever since then that myth has refused to die.

Some Italian sources claim that pasta originated with the Etruscans, a pre-Roman civilization on the Italian peninsula, but evidence for this is spotty. It is more likely that pasta originated in the Middle East and traveled to the Italian Peninsula via the Emirate of Sicily.

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Jun 23 201686 Mandeville, Part Three

No one knows who wrote The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. There is no record of an English knight alive at the right time with that name who could have written it. One oft-repeated theory is that Mandeville retired to Belgium, lived under a pseudonym, and only confessed his authorship of the Travels on his deathbed. Other than the uncorroborated word of a Liege notrary, though, we have nothing to substantiate this theory.

What we do know is that the work was not wholly original, and combined elements of several pre-existing fantasies and romances into a single narrative. And, despite or maybe because of the fantasy elements, it did so well. It remains a fascinating look at what it means to encounter the unfamiliar, to travel, and to see the world that lies just beyond the lands you know.

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Jun 16 201685 Mandeville, Part Two

As the Travels of Sire John Mandeville move away from the familiar and the Holy Land, they get progressively more bizarre. The laws of convention and even reality seem to break down as Mandeville encounters cannibals, dog people, weaponized elephants, and headless humans who have faces on their chest. In one particularly striking passage Mandeville says that not only is the world round, but that one can circumnavigate it, and he also characterizes the Kingdom of the Great Khan as perhaps the most advanced nation in the entire world. The book ends with description of the Earthly Paradise, the one spot on the globe that Mandeville, despite all of his experience, cannot reach.

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